The crazy, frustrating world of ours

I’ve been back in Sydney for some time now. With all the trips back and forth over the years, it is no longer strange to be jump between these worlds, which are so different from each other.

I keep thinking of Vanuatu. In particular I’ve been thinking of the big question of development there, the tourism development or whatever development for that matter. As I had mentioned in past posts I photographed some people and places in order to help promote a couple of the lesser known regions to tourists, in a sense to develop tourism there.

Before I left Vanuatu I managed to get a photo story into Air Vanuatu’s inflight magazine “Island Spirit”. Besides being on the airplanes the publication can be found at every single hotel and guesthouse around the bigger towns of the country. That will be a good little push for George and South West Bay, hopefully. But I keep thinking about where the potential development, where all that interaction with tourists and all the building of new guesthouses, new facilities will lead. Will it really be positive, as I perhaps naively hope? To be totally honest, the country for most part is perfect, or rather it would be perfect, if there weren’t these conflicting views that the modern, developed, “white-man” world is bringing.

Prior to leaving the island of Santo I met an interesting young anthropologist. He had a very cynical view of where things might head. History, he said showed that development had never been good for societies similar to that of Vanuatu. Urban drift, alcohol consumption, increased crime rates - these were all byproducts of the so called modernization. I could only imagine in horror how the wonderful places I’d been to might be affected if things don’t go quite as planned.

In some ways I agree with the anthropologist, but another part of me feels that at times the thinking and reasoning of academics is quite unrealistic. He suggested that it would be better to keep things as they are, the locals don’t need all this crap that we have, they’ve been living for hundreds of years without it. Agreed. But then I had been in Vanuatu long enough and had spoken to enough locals who lived in between these two worlds - the modern and the ancient and they were desperate to see more of our world, to do those things that the “white-men” get to do. Young, a good friend I made on the very remote Rah Island had worked in Port Vila - the capital of Vanuatu for a few years, he acquired a taste for TV and he desperately wanted to see different parts of the world. When I told him that what they have is special, that they don’t need to seek happiness elsewhere or to change things at home, he replied “Yes, but I want to see why it’s so special here. I want to see other countries and to be able to decide for myself.” Fair enough, I think.

He also said something that was very simple and ultimately really insightful. “The white people used to come here and say - you must all change, become modern, wear clothes, stop your rituals, worship Jesus. Now they come and say - go back to the ways of the past, become more traditional, we want to see more of your culture. What are we to do? We are very confused now! What is it exactly that you want from us?” What Young said reflects the way many young Ni Vanutu people from the islands must feel. He’s confused and somewhat frustrated, and; who’s to say that development will answer his questions? Who’s to say that Port Villa isn’t going to become the next Port Moresby (considered by many one of the least livable cities in the world)? If Port Vila is indeed heading that way, tourism will be a pretty small concern in comparison the multitude of serious problems that will arise.

And so I keep asking myself. On the one hand; what is the point of development in a place like Vanuatu? On the other hand; what is the point of preserving things, if all the young locals want to do is watch “Rambo” and “Lost”? Can they really be blamed? Are they lesser people than us that we should decide what’s good for them and what’s not? And then ultimately I ask myself; what is the point of doing what I started? Meaning helping the locals attract more tourists to their areas and in effect “develop” them.

I guess I find comfort in one story that was told to me by an American NGO worker who I met along my journey. He had the same dilemma as me at the beginning of what has now been a four year commitment to developing medical centers around the country. He once asked a more experienced NGO worker: “What is the point of what we’re doing? These people survived for so long without us. Are we just f--cking up their world, by pushing them forward and changing their ideology with what we are doing?” To this he got the following reply. “Development is inevitable, you aren’t going to be able to stop things or go back to the stone age, but things can move forward in different ways. Development can put everything on its head and basically destroy an entire society or it can be brought on more gently, more gradually and that will lead to a much smoother transition and a less disastrous result. You’re one of the people who’s trying to achieve the latter and that is a good thing.”

I hope that my involvement would put me in the latter category too. I should also mention that in Vanuatu development has so far only been “passed down” to the locals from the foreigners that have invested in the country (or before colonized it). The foreigners are in power, while the locals are mostly picking up the crumbs of the benefits of this “development” and they are often having to do this away from home, because development is centered only around the capital and the island of Espiritu Santo.

Tourism outside of the main islands, would actually put a lot of people in an entirely different position. They would not have to go outside to earn their money, they would become business owners (some already are), they would be empowered to make their decisions and whether that would be to go back to the ways of the past or to watch DVDs well, that’s a decision which I believe they deserve to make.

Well, that’s about it for this post. I needed to get those thoughts out of the system. I invite anyone who has read this post in full to share their opinions; whether cynical or not I am very interested to read what other people are thinking. What have some of you learned from your journeys or perhaps from living in countries which have seen rapid development recently?

You might not hear all that much from me in the coming weeks (though I’ll try). I’ve been busy archiving my collection with the aim of putting up on Photoshelter. I’ll also be slightly redesigning the website and the blog. Good changes are on their way. Stay tuned.